Social listening is the process of monitoring social media channels for mentions of a brand, competitors, a product, service, or keyword. It allows brands to know what its customers are saying about it, how they feel about the brand, helps them to discover the pain points in the customer journey and obtain actionable insights that will help them to improve the customer experience.

According to a report from eMarketer and Gartner, over 50% of marketers are getting information about consumers through social listening during the pandemic. Social listening is such a valuable tool that the WHO has been using social listening to combat the spread of misinformation on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article will look into the ways that social listening can be used to improve the customer experience.

Defining Social Listening?

Social media usage is at an all-time high as of October, 2020, with 3.96 billion users worldwide according to research from SmartInsights. A recent GlobalWebIndex report indicated that from January - March 2020, digital consumers were on social networks (and messaging apps) an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day. Not surprisingly, the report also showed that up to 50% of social media users use social networks to do research on products and services. Social media is a huge part of a brand’s customer experience.

According to Davitha Ghiassi, executive vice president, Social and Integration at Red Havas, social media and social listening is more than just about adding to the customer’s experience, it’s a crucial part of that experience. “Therefore, conducting social listening helps you truly hear your customer (existing as well as potential) in surround sound and unlocks actionable insights.”

Social listening is an effective method of finding out what people are talking about on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks. Brands use social listening to learn what their customers think about their products and services, how they feel about their interactions with a brand through all the brand’s channels, and through the process, they are able to discover any pain points the customer may have experienced in their journey.

Social media is well known for being a place where people feel free to express their opinions, so it makes a great place where brands can learn exactly how their customers feel, and what kind of emotional connection they have made with a brand. It’s also a great place to discover trends in an industry or technology, and to learn about a brand’s competitors. According to a report from Statista, 33% of respondents from the United States stated that they have used social media to complain about a brand or its customer service. Social listening can be an effective way of knowing when a customer is reaching out to a brand, whether it is on the brand’s own social presence, or their own profile page.

Dean Browell, PhD, Professor of Digital Ethnography and Social Listening at the VCU School of Business, said that the deep behavioral insights that social listening provides offers brands a look into the decision making process of its customers, directly through the landscape that other prospective customers use when they are seeking information about a brand, product or service. “Social listening helps to illustrate the personalities and behaviors of audiences and can be used to follow trends and patterns in both the audiences and their feelings toward brands, services, products, facilities, and more. Social listening seeks to provide the voice of the consumer and understand the volume and timber of that voice and how it influences others.”

As Ghiassi explained, although a brand may receive customer feedback directly through branded channels, the majority of customers do not actually follow the brand’s social profile. “Research shows that 96% of the people that discuss brands online do not follow those brands’ owned profiles. Therefore, looking beyond the comments that come to you is crucial in order to see the complete picture; and social listening enables you to do just that by tracking conversations including relevant keywords, brand mentions and even visual mentions of your brand,” she said.

Professor Browell said that while it’s understandable that brands want to know what is said through their own official channels, that’s not necessarily where they will be able to find the best insights. “There’s a real issue with thinking that by mostly paying attention to who shows up at your official channels represents how people actually feel about you. Yes, there’s things to be revealed in those interactions, but the context of those interactions is incredibly important — and showing how people speak to peers when you’re not around is crucial to understanding why some segment shows up at all on your digital doorstep. It’s too small a focus group.”

Given the fact that social listening tools search through millions of social media posts using multiple keywords, hashtags and profiles, they are capable of determining what a brand’s target audience is talking about, how often they are talking, as well as providing a deeper understanding of the context in which they are talking. By highlighting trending topics, a brand can create marketing and sales copy that will more directly appeal to the target audience, as well as website content that is more relevant for that audience. Additionally, by using the language that the target audience used, brands are able to create more effective SEO campaigns.

Aspects of the customer experience that can be identified through social listening include:

  • The problems that customers have, which provide opportunities to create solutions and eradicate pain points.
  • The solutions and features customers desire, which provides opportunities for new features, products or services.
  • The questions that customers ask, which provides opportunities to write answers which push the customer closer to a sale, as well as to provide content that answers their questions on the brand’s website or social presence.
  • The customers’ brand perception, which enables a brand to work on aligning its values with those of its customers.
  • Which stage customers are at in the buying process, which allows brands to more effectively communicate with them.
  • The things that customers really like about a brand’s products, services, or solutions.
  • The things that customers don’t like about a brand’s products, services, or solutions.

Additional information that can be obtained through social listening includes:

  • Industry trends, which enable brands to stay ahead of the curve.
  • Consumer trends, which enable brands to provide the products and services that customers are interested in.
  • Overall brand visibility measurements, which enable a brand to determine its market saturation, or lack thereof.
  • Crisis management, which allows a brand to quickly get on top of any emerging crisis involving brand perception.
  • Ad campaign evaluation, which enables a brand to test the impact of any ad campaigns it is running on social media.
  • Top influencer discovery, which enables a brand to know who its customers follow.

The 2020 Sprout Social Index report indicated that 79% of consumers expect a response within the first 24 hours after reaching out to a brand on social media, and 40% expect brands to respond within an hour. Social listening can be an effective part of a brand’s customer service efforts, and can play a valuable role in determining if its customer’s needs are being fulfilled, which also helps to improve the customer experience.

“Needless to say, listening to your audience via this channel is key,” said Ghiassi. “But social listening not only offers a powerful means of identifying and directly addressing comments, questions or concerns surrounding your brand or product, it also allows you to look to them for insights that can help improve the overall customer service strategy.”

Related Article: The Future of Listening

What About Search Listening?

Similar to social listening, search listening is the process of monitoring Google searches for mentions of a brand, topic, competitor, or keyword, and then analyzing the data that has been collected in order to obtain actionable insights and opportunities for improvement. Tools such as AnswerThePublic are often used to analyze the results of Google searches, as the service provides a variety of questions, prepositions, comparisons, and alphabetical listings that have been searched for on Google that contain the brand name, product, or keyword.

The theory behind this is that when someone uses Google to do a search, Google responds by digging deep into long-tail search queries that are based on what other people typically search for when they search for the same topic. This provides a wealth of data that brands can use to understand the needs, desires, and perceptions of their customers, what they want from the brand, and any problems they have experienced when dealing with a brand. It also allows the brand to better understand how customers feel about its competitors.

Search listening is worth mentioning because when used along with social listening, the combination can provide insights that are valuable for content marketers, content creators, sales, as well as customer experience initiatives. By itself, however, search listening is not as effective for gaining a deeper understanding of a brand’s customers. “Understanding how people search for content and peer discussion is important — but social listening goes the extra step to read deeply into what they actually find and value,” said Browell.

Social Media Analytics

Social media analytics refers to the process of analyzing the data that has been collected from social media. Often, the same software or platform that is used to gather the data does the analysis as well. Platforms such as Brandwatch Consumer Research, SproutSocial, Notified, Talkwalker, MeltwaterSocial, and Mention all have capabilities that include social listening, analytics, and reporting.

Brandwatch, for instance, searches through 1.2 trillion posts going all the way back to 2008, with 496 million new posts searched each day. Once the data has been gathered, the platform uses AI technology to analyze and categorize the data.

Learning Opportunities

Although AI is being used by social listening platforms to simplify the process of analyzing data, there is always going to be a need for the human element to ensure that brands are actually listening in the right places — with an understanding of human behavior. “Beyond actual behaviorists with experience in parsing human behavior it can get tricky — and error-filled as AI has its shortcomings and many dashboards only rely on the APIs and pipes of information they can access easily, which is not always where audiences are being candid or taking into account how they might speak differently in one channel or another,” said Professor Browell.

To obtain the best data from the huge volume of posts that are posted daily on social networks, a brand must first decide just what it wants to search for. Typically this may include the names of the brand, product, or service, keywords relative to the brand, branded hashtags, the names of competitors and their products or services, social media handles, the names of C-suite employees of the brand, and the domain name of the brand's website.

Social Media Intelligence

Social media intelligence refers to the knowledge or insights that have been gained by analyzing the data from social media. The term was first coined in 2012 by Carl Miller, David Omand, and Jamie Bartlett at the London-based think tank, Demos. They were writing a paper for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) about how intelligence is the key to social media, and social media intelligence is an expansion of social media monitoring and social listening.

By using social listening, brands are able to gather data from customers; by using social analytics, they are able to analyze the data; the actionable insights they gather from social analytics are referred to as social media intelligence. With social media intelligence, a brand has the ability to make positive changes that increase the efficiency of content marketing and sales campaigns, while improving the customer experience. Additionally, social media can be seen as a testbed for marketing, as it is essentially one very large focus group. “Look at social media as your brands’ largest focus group! Not only can you leverage social listening to understand audience perceptions and needs in developing the right messaging/creative approach, but you can also ’test’ different creative approaches by unleashing them through social in the lead up to larger-scale productions,” Ghiassi explained. “This allows you to look to the audiences’ response in order to gauge what resonates or where things could improve, before you invest further time and resources.”

Social Listening Is Extremely Useful for CX

Due to the depth of understanding that social listening provides, a brand is able to determine the pain points in the customer journey. Customers who post on social media are not just posting on the brand’s social presence, but also on their own profile page and those of their friends. Given the often opinionated conversations that arise on social media, social listening analytics are able to pinpoint discussions that detail the areas that a brand can improve or eradicate.

Professor Browell explained that social listening allows brands to gain an understanding — directly through the voices of its customers — and that what they are saying resonates with all those who may not be actively speaking on social media, but rather, are reading the comments of those who are speaking. He said that brands need to pay attention to those customers who speak the loudest, because “they’re telling you what products they want, how they want to be treated, and who they trust. And if you think those are just the loudest voices, then understand the power of those loud voices for all the lurkers looking for answers.”

Social listening can also be used to enhance customer engagement. By responding immediately to customer comments, questions, or complaints, a brand is able to show the customer that the brand genuinely cares about them as a person. It also provides an opportunity to correct a dispute or pain point that the customer has experienced while interacting with a brand in real-time. 

While surveys and feedback forms can be useful for improving the customer experience, customers often do not wish to communicate through those mechanisms. They will, however, communicate through social media, so brands are able to reach and engage many more customers by becoming aware of any social mentions. This is often where a brand can find and engage with both its happiest and most disgruntled customers.

There is a huge difference in how a brand’s customers provide feedback through its official channels, such as its website or brick-and-mortar store, and how they relate to a brand on social media, and this opens up a great opportunity for brands to truly understand the customer experience. “Social listening can help you understand the customer experience and their perception of it - and how it influences others,” Browell said. “That’s very different than simply how they navigate your website or find products in store (although they might talk about that too).”

The Challenges of Social Listening

Given the vast amount of data that is produced on social media each day, one of the biggest challenges of social listening is narrowing down the right data. It can be as simple, or challenging, as the search terms that are used to socially listen. For instance, the brand known as “Apple” does not want to collect data about the well-known fruit of the same name.

A brand needs to narrowly define the goals of a social listening program in order for it to be effective. A social listening program with the goal of improving the customer experience would be different than one with the goal of crisis management, brand perception, or content creation.

Professor Browell suggested that many brands rely too much on customer demographics they have obtained from sources they have not validated, and that social listening provides opportunities for a deeper understanding of its customers through their own voices. “Stop everything you’re doing and do a deep listening study. Get a great sense of who and where your audiences are. Listen to how they’re making decisions, how they speak of competitors, how different geographies operate and how your audiences vary in them. Don’t just rely on big data / CRMs, supplement that with qualitative to help bring depth to your audience stories. And for goodness sakes, mix your market research so you’re not just reliant on one or two research techniques.”

Often the biggest challenge that brands face when using social listening is that they are so eager to see the results that they are hoping for that they ignore those that they aren’t. “The largest challenge by far right now is trying too hard for efficiencies and sacrificing real understanding of audience voice. It’s essentially the trade off of rich illustrative behavioral analysis for a very pretty graph that gives you a red-light vs green-light on your brand health,” Browell said. Brands tend to see what they want to see based on their investments, and often lose sight of the opportunities that are available to them if they actually pay attention to what their customers are telling them. “Align based on the outputs of your audiences as opposed to aligning to the outputs of your investments. It means recalibrating often and being honest about what you might not know.”

Final Thoughts

Social listening is an amazing opportunity for brands to find out exactly what their customers think of the brand, its product and services, its culture, and if the brand is living up to the values of its customers. By using social listening, a brand can obtain actionable insights that it can use to improve the customer experience, customer engagement, and customer service.